Key Insights for New and Aspiring School Leaders

Navigating the Principalship: Key Insights for New and Aspiring School Leaders
By James P. Spillane and Rebecca Lowenhaupt
(ASCD, 2019 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Michael DiClemente

Looking back, I see I submitted my first MiddleWeb book review six years ago – in the summer of 2014.

Although I first began to teach in 2005, I took a break after five years and decided to return to the classroom in 2013. As the 2014 school year began, I was a new middle level history teacher with a passion for the subject, a love of working with children, and a desire to gain valuable teaching experience.

I am now in a position where I have increased my knowledge, earned my Pk-12 Moderate Disabilities license, and gained my Professional teaching license in history. I am a mentor teacher, and I have held several different leadership positions in my school and district. It’s with this background in mind that I would like to frame this review.

I never really put serious thought into getting my principal’s license and pursuing a job in administration. Two conversations over the past year changed my mind. One was with my former principal (who now works at our high school), and the other was with the Director of Curriculum and Instruction (who served as my first evaluator).

These two conversations happened independently of each other, but both individuals told me how they think I should pursue the license and consider being a principal. They both said that I would be good at it and possessed the right qualities of a good administrator.

I relate all this not to pat myself on the back but to provide context to my decision making. The principals discussed in Navigating the Principalship by James Spillane and Rebecca Lowenhaupt come from many different backgrounds and experiences. Each one brings their own advantages and disadvantages to the role.

Dilemmas aren’t like ordinary problems, which can be solved with technical solutions. Because dilemmas derive from a clash of values that are roughly equally compelling and in constant conflict, they can’t really be solved at all. But dilemmas can be managed through a process of ongoing negotiation and renegotiation. Learning to cope with dilemmas and to accept them as a continuing feature of the work is a key skill for all new principals and it’s a particular focus of this book. (p. 11)

It’s important that principals learn to manage the dilemmas associated with shifting responsibilities, because these dilemmas do not fade away with time or experience. They remain a defining aspect of being a principal. (p. 31)

A realistic view of a principal’s life

If the above quotes do not completely turn you off to the complexities of the role of principal, then it is safe to continue reading. Navigating the Principalship is a realistic view of what it is like working as a principal, and all the issues that can arise on any given day.

The book discusses the journeys of principals from Chicago who come to their role as principal from different backgrounds and different experiences. With this variety of experience to draw upon, the authors are able to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short amount of space.

I will admit that some aspects of the book overwhelm me as I consider myriad tasks at hand for a principal on any given day. It also gave me a greater appreciation for what my own principal goes through each day. From where I’m standing now, I almost cannot comprehend how all the work gets done. It is especially difficult given the current situation we are in with the pandemic and trying to constantly plan for all the changes and also have contingency plans in place.

Essential reading for aspiring and new principals

Although I feel principals at any level or place in their career could appreciate this book, I really feel the audience (as stated in the subtitle Key Insights for New and Aspiring School Leaders) appeals most to aspiring principals and possibly those in their first few years of service.

The stories and insights in this book give aspiring leaders a sense of the time commitment, the task loading, the daily responsibility, the dealing with stakeholders, and the genuine need for work-life balance. I feel providing a full and accurate view of what it’s like to be a principal is beneficial to new and aspiring principals because this book can give them a sense that they are not alone in struggles and successes.

If you, like me, are considering pursuing a job as a principal someday, then I recommend you read Navigating the Principalship. You will get real insight into what goes into being a principal. I really appreciated that the book spent equal time on the rewards as well as the challenges of the job. If for nothing else, it makes you pause and consider what your principal is going through every day.

Michael DiClemente began teaching in 2005 and after about five years took a bit of a break. He came to his current position as a sixth grade history teacher in 2013. He has held several leadership positions and is currently a mentor teacher. Michael began coursework toward his principal license during the summer of 2020.

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